At the Campaign AGM on 9 May Lyn Brown MP gave a speech which offered some insight into the progress of the Inquiry she initiated and is leading with the Parliamentary All Party Group on Libraries, Literacy and Information.  Here is what she said.

“It really is a great pleasure to be here today at your AGM because it gives me an opportunity to place on record my admiration and respect for your organisation and to see some old friends from my days as Chair of the London Library Development Agency.

Over these last few years, we have been travelling along similar paths – not always agreeing on every detail! – but I have been impressed by your constancy, your commitment and your inclusive approach.  You appear to have no command and control structures in place yet have been able to mobilise opinion and inspire action across the UK.  More power to your collective elbow.

I would urge you all to continue to be involved in the debate.  And there is a debate.  And it’s a debate that is finding a resonance in national newspapers and that is all to the good.  Because there have been years when finding one article about libraries in the national papers has been hard and successive years passed when no scrutiny or promotion of the service occurred at all.

And just for the record, these weren’t halcyon times, when the sun shone and songbirds abounded in our trees, – when no library budgets were cut and no libraries closed – when campaigns were not needed or when journalists weren’t necessary to highlight ailing services.  These too were difficult times when some library services put a complete freeze on fiction purchases, others handed branches over to unsupported and untrained volunteers who were set up to fail and libraries were closed without the oxygen or glare public scrutiny. But you know this – because those were the days that inspired your founder members to create this organisation.

Thankfully today – there is a greater interest – and several thought provoking articles have recently appeared – and I – as I am sure some of you – find myself shouting at the pages of the Observer, or Independent or the Times because I think the analysis is wrong.  Or perhaps your mental health is in better shape…

So this is – in some ways a better time – let’s make the most of it.  Let’s use it to persuade politicians locally and nationally that disregarding the value of libraries, cutting or decimating the service is, and can be, politically costly and the only way forward is embracing the library and moulding it to provide the most appropriate and comprehensive service for the community it serves.

Let me set out my stall.

In our society – in our communities, Libraries deliver on many social agendas – they provide for the education agenda for school aged children through class visits, homework clubs, and reading groups.  Many also engage in work that tackles anti-social behaviour or adds to the Sure Start agenda; reaching out to those who have much to gain from the opportunities that a library has to offer.

They play an important role with the education of adults, providing classes for English as an additional language, the silver surfing or click on sessions for over 50s.  They provide real access to information – civic knowledge.

And now very importantly in this recession libraries have a role in employability, – the university of the people, assisting people to reach their aspirations though skills sessions, employability sessions, advice on getting into work. Help with the basic skills of literacy and reading that are needed to survive and succeed in the world of work.  Anecdotally libraries are busier than ever before.  Good library services use the resources they have to explore how their remit is relevant to the communities they serve.

Our libraries continue to be a place of learning – despite the coffee and chatter, despite new interpretations of core service, despite new client groups with different needs.

Some of our young people go there to do homework, some to re-engage with reading through computer games.  We, being a little older, and not perhaps being of the gaming generation, will use libraries to indulge in a love of reading, exploring rich and modern texts with friends in a reading group, others to learn new skills and seek jobs.  Some of the older people in our community are using libraries to explore that topic or interest for which they have not have time before, the genealogy of their family, the natural history of the Galapagos Islands or to learn computer skills to alleviate loneliness or solve difficulties that come from a lessening of mobility by learning to do a weekly shop on-line.

And all this is learning – all of it – including and especially the child, playing a play station game – who then borrows the comic book that accompanies the game – and reads – willingly – and with a thirst – for perhaps the first time in his or her life.

This too is learning and it belongs in a library.

Well that’s my view – and I know that it is not universal, possibly controversial.

I believe that libraries are a powerful tool to be wielded against ignorance, enabling and empowering those with a desire to learn, indeed kindling in the young and old alike a vision of other worlds, realities and possibilities.

Libraries exist as a challenge to the status quo and in our not too distant history were regarded by some as downright dangerous.  In the 1820’s – at the time of the formation of the Mechanics Institutes, which included libraries– the forerunner of this very College there was real opposition to the expansion of learning opportunities.

The ‘Weekly Messenger’ of 16 November 1823 suggested that the effect on working men of evening education would be to make them ‘impatient, fantastic and mutinous’.  The ‘St James Chronicle’ in May 1825 went a little further and observed that ‘a scheme more completely adapted for the destruction of the empire could not have been invented by the author of evil himself’.

I love it – libraries as fomenters’ of revolution – providing the working man – and woman with the tools to challenge their servitude, enrich lives and achieve to their fullest potential.

In 19th century Britain having something close to universal access to public libraries was an emotional cause.  When the garden suburbs were built – libraries were at their very heart.  They were hubs of knowledge, learning, classes, meetings (places to ferment revolutions, social changes, campaigns, protests etc.

The Library is a revolutionary place – an engine of radical social change. Some choose to forget this – but they were created as part of an energetic social movement, linking and fuelling the many agendas for change.

The library was not created to be passive unchanging, static institution, or a museum for books.

And I know that this part of my commitment to libraries sometimes brings me opposition, indeed opprobrium.

I have been politically involved in Library issues for approximately eighteen years; initially as a Councillor in the London Borough of Newham where from 1992 – 2005 I had the privilege of holding the library portfolio as part of my brief.  I was appointed to the Advisory Council for Libraries under both Tory and Labour administrations.

So when I got to Parliament – actually in the first month – I was approached to chair the All Party Group on Libraries.  The group receives a small amount of funding from CILIP to allow us to under-take some policy work, and also support from the National Literacy Trust – again they assist with policy support and seed funding.  We are also very grateful to Insight Public Affairs, who undertake a whole bunch of administration work pro bono – it is this support that has allowed us to undertake an Inquiry into leadership in the public library sector this year – more on this in a few minutes.

An All Party Group is what it says on the tin – a group of enthusiasts from across the political spectrum who come together to work upon a common issue.  APPGs include members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and have officers drawn from across the party spectrum. APPGs have no formal place in the legislature and meet together, in a relatively informal manner, inviting Government Ministers to speak at meetings.  For example, the last APPG Libraries event was addressed by Ed Balls the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

I am not going to patronise you by pretending that there are huge numbers of MP’s champing at the bit to discuss Library policy – there are not. MP’s, in general, do lead ridiculously busy lives – and we find it very difficult to find the time to do the things we want to.  In that context the APPG set itself two tasks.

First to get more MP’s into their local libraries to see and understand their local service.  If MP’s are to be involved locally in campaigning on their local libraries or involved at a national level in scrutiny or lobbying about the service – we wanted them to up to date with their impressions and knowledge, not simply remembering a service they had used – or avoided – in their youth.

And second we wanted to influence library policy.  We wanted to impress upon Ministers and policy formers – in particular outside the DCMS – what libraries can do for them.  Libraries many roles in the delivery of essential policies of Government are not always understood or valued and we wanted to do something to change this.

Frankly, I wanted to use the brand of the all party group to evangelise.

We have had some success.  The first Minister to accept our invitation to speak with us was Phil Woolas.  At that time he was the Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion.

He came to present a paper, but stayed to listen and engage enthusiastically with, in the main, newly elected Library devotees at my first meeting as chair of the All Party Libraries Group.  That select group included the now Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools and Learners, a couple of whips and the Regional Minister for the west midlands – so a bright and gifted bunch.  It was a fabulous energetic meeting.

Following that meeting, a libraries case study was included by officials in the Local Government White Paper.  Additionally a paper was commissioned to look at the role libraries play in the regeneration of communities.

Despite the undeniable quality of the participant at that first event we understood that this was likely to be a one off, as pressures on our time increased.  And – we needed to get a much bigger reach into Parliament.

In partnership with a number of publishers and the Reading Agency, we invited MP’s for individual photo opportunities to promote the Reading Agency’s summer reading challenge, and presented them with a selection of books for them to donate to a local library.  Afterwards some male MP’s confessed to visiting a library for the first time in decades – as it was their ‘wives that took the children you know’.  I received some excellent feedback from that event from public library staff as well as MP’s and it is something we have done every year since.

At the AGM last summer we agreed that it was important for us to expand the means by which we endeavour to impact upon the world of the public libraries – it wasn’t enough to have the small victories with civil servants being forced to include libraries in Whitehall strategies at the behest of ministers or having small political contributions from large political figures expressing an understanding and support for the service or even getting MP’s into their local branch – we wanted to have more impact – so we decided upon a review and we tentatively discussed a number of issues upon which we wanted to focus.

But the best laid plans …

They say library reviews come in threes – unlike Boris’s buses in snowy London when you don’t get any at all. Unison got theirs in first – the Burnham review is progressing – and the All Party Group waited to see where the two reviews would lead before determining upon its topic.

Our Inquiry is intended to be complementary to the other reviews and is concentrating very specifically on the leadership and governance of the public library service in England…

We live in an age when Government is seeking to dictate less to Councils about what services to provide and how – less ringfencing, less imposed standards.  The Government rightly believes that Council’s should be accountable for their actions to their communities through the ballot box about the services they provide. But we have a situation where Libraries do not have the service profile they deserve given the role they play and can potentially play in our society.

Libraries continually fail to prove their value to our governments and our public, we fail to engage and promote ourselves as a sector.  We fail to understand and respond to the real world of political campaigning, our lack of clear impact assessment measures is as I have said over and over for about a decade, a potentially fatal flaw.  Leadership for our library sector is needed now I feel, more than ever before.  Now when more people need and use their local library service as the recession and the credit crunch begins to bite.  And it is now, as the recession bites and Local Authorities are trying to reduce the Council Tax burden and introduce “recession busting” measures – as my own announced – Libraries, which should be a core part of that agenda are under threat.

Public library provision and the cultural sector is always a soft target for cuts.  And that’s because some local Council’s simply don’t understand the power of what libraries can achieve.

We have not created impact assessment measures, we didn’t like the library standards – kicked against them and have replaced them with – nothing – unless you count the Library benchmark and frankly I don’t.  And it’s in this context of localism that we need to consider who does and who should nationally lead the development of the library sector – and I believe this debate is urgent.

We need a debate about what it means to have a statutory service because I can’t be the only person who thinks that at the moment the public library provision is statutory in name only – There is no definition of what a library is and no regulation to assess, inspect or demand improvement to it.

I can’t change this reality – not from an all party group – But what I can do is use the profile to raise possibly uncomfortable truths, campaign to raise the profile of the service and challenge those responsible for its development.

I called for submissions to the enquiry just before Easter and was expecting around 25 responses.  So I was absolutely delighted to receive 58 submissions.  30 came from local authorities and the remainder are from a range of organisations and individuals including campaign groups.

We pursued 6 key lines of enquiry and will be giving careful consideration to the submissions as part of our process.  I am very happy to provide you with an exclusive headline preview of the responses so far but much of the debate – and the devil- will be in the detail.

Although there is consensus around a few key points, the views are wide ranging and at times opposing.  Overall, far more weaknesses have been highlighted than strengths.  The majority of responses paint a bleak national picture but a number do highlight that in some council areas, the public library service is developing and thriving.  The first thing to say is that there is broad agreement about 3 key fundamentals which are non -negotiable: a statutory framework, a service free at the point of delivery and the local authorities as service provider.

Strengths of the current position identified include:

  • Local democratic accountability
  • Best policy fit for local circumstances
  • Availability of powers of intervention by Secretary of State
  • Strong public support (especially at times of crisis)
  • National asset of 4,500 buildings and associated services
  • Helpful and expert staff
  • Diversity and innovation

Weaknesses cited include:

  • No coherent national vision nor grand plan for the public library service
  • No agreed national offer
  • Lack of definition of comprehensive and efficient service
  • Confusing array of bodies with a role in leading the public library movement
  • Few local and no national leadership voices
  • No coordinated programmes for advocacy, marketing or promotion Insufficient political and managerial clout at local level
  • Loss/lack of standards and inspection regime
  • Public Libraries Act requires overhaul
  • Division between policy(DCMS) and funding(DCLG)
  • Failure by Secretary of State to intervene
  • Huge gap between the best and the worst ill equipped and unhelpful staff (as opposed to the helpful and expert staff in the strengths!)

As expected, there is a virtually unanimous ‘yes’ response to the suggestion that local communities should have a greater say. Comments include:

  • Non-users (and even users) are not informed enough about their local libraries to have a meaningful engagement in decision making. Customer updates by email and other basic communication tools are still the exception rather than the rule.
  • Libraries are perceived as honest brokers and neutral ground and must avoid one faith, culture or ideology dominating.
  • A number of examples are cited where Friends Groups are involved in stock selection, refurbishment planning and staff interviews.  There is separately a fear expressed that community ownership is often a result of budgetary constraint.  I’ve talked myself of communities set up to fail.
  • Engagement tools cited included residents panels, surveys, focus groups, comment cards.  Some emerging work has been flagged involving volunteer groups, a young people’s management board, You Tube, Twitter and mobile phone portals.

Should central government intervene more?  There was a majority view that intervention by the Secretary of State should only be used in truly exceptional circumstances but nevertheless is too little used.  Most acknowledged that the definition of ‘comprehensive and efficient’ must be expressed more precisely for the power to be workable.  A number of respondents suggested strengthening the power or scrapping the power.

In relation to formal governance structures, there is a virtually unanimous view that the role and purpose of ACL is confused and unclear.  There is a widely shared view that it should be disbanded.  Must say I was horrified by this. I have sat on this body – twice – and don’t remember there being such hostility to it.

There is a strong view that MLA is museums focused and does not have a good record with libraries, although a few think that it may now may be in a position to contribute more effectively to the library agenda and should be given time.  Others think it is too late.

As far as the future is concerned there was a general consensus (with one or two notable exceptions) around the following requirements for change.

  • One lead voice for libraries
  • A national vision for the service
  • Improved marketing and promotion
  • Establishment of a library development agency or similar
  • Library policy and funding together within a single government department
  • Overhaul of the Public Libraries Act and provision of a regulatory framework
  • Establishment of a evidence base to show impacts.

So that is where we are so far.

Already you can see that there are differing views being expressed. I welcome your continuing contribution to the debate.  The Group meets again in full session on 19 May and we aim to have a summary report with recommendations published by the end of June.

I then intend to deliver the report to the Secretary of State with a request for detailed review of the recommendations for change that hopefully will have come forward.

The reason why we are here today is because we are active and involved members of the library community and we care passionately about them.

My passion is not prompted merely by the content, ethos and values of the public library concept although I clearly feel such a strong affinity.  My passion is really focused on what libraries can do to change lives and tackle inequality in its many guises.

That’s why I am here talking to you this afternoon – I am hoping to galvanise a reaction and more action from you.

I would be very happy to develop the debate with you here and now.  Also, additional written comment will still be accepted for the next week or so.

In conclusion, congratulations on your achievements thus far, and may I wish us all ‘successful campaigning’!

Thank you for listening .”

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